Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

The Venice Biennale: An Art Lover’s Paradise

Venice at any time of year is beautiful. But Venice during the Biennale is spectacular…modern art is juxtaposed against the ancient city, and everywhere you turn, there’s something amazing, puzzling, thought provoking, and real. Art is, after all, what you make of it. Most any artist that I’ve talked to can tell you what inspired them to create, but most have said that it’s really about the audience and what they take away that brings the piece to life and gives it meaning. At the 2007 Biennale, I wandered in and out of the international pavilions set up in the arsenale, which served as the main “gallery.”

My favorites were the Canadian and Turkish pavilions. What struck me the most was the diversity of the international artists; each voice was clearly influenced by individual cultures and life experience. The best part of the Biennale, in my opinion, is the art that you pass, stumble upon, and almost run into all around the public spaces of the city. Venice is completely walkable (no cars allowed) and the art is everywhere. Perfect exampleI passed a giant skull constructed out of what appeared to be kitchen utensils while taking a water bus down the Grand Canal. It floated quietly on its barge, grimacing with its big silver teeth. Very cool. Grand palazzo are filled with modern art…if the doors are open, don’t be afraid to take a look. At one point, I wandered into an open set of doors to find myself in a room that had been transformed by the artist into an eerie white forest.

I was lucky enough to stay at the Excelsior on the Lido. It was mid September, and the hotel felt about half full. The work crews were busy striking the beach cabanas for the winter, and the air was just cool enough at night. Perfect. When I explored the hotel upon arrival, I was delighted to find that several artists' works were set up in and around the hotel. My favorite piece was just outside the exit to the beachFlorida artist Carol Feuerman’s Survival of Serena. Larger than life… Peaceful…Serene…Real. It was the perfect representation (for me) of a European tourist on holiday floating on the calm Adriatic. You could even see the drops of water glistening in the sun. Tragically, the sculpture was damaged beyond repair last year while being transported back to the United States.

I peeled myself away from the Biennale long enough to take a trip over to Muranoonly a short water bus ride across the lagoon. I have a small collection of glass, and have always been fascinated by the glass-making process. During the 13th century, the glass blowers in Venice were relocated to Murano after the threat of fire from the furnaces became too great. The isolation also helped the glassblowers keep their recipes and techniques secret. I found Murano to be especially touristyfilled with little souvenir shops along its own version of the “Grand Canal,” but I veered off the main drag and checked out the more remote glass blowing studios and was lucky to catch a glass blowing team in action. My favorite Murano glass artist is Archimede Seguso, whose team’s modern artistry has its roots firmly planted in Murano’s traditional past.

For a little history, I recommend reading City of Falling Angels by John Berendt. Signore Seguso is featured prominently in this remarkable tale of La Fenice opera house’s horrible destruction by fire and subsequent rebirth. I couldn’t purchase Seguso’s glass on Murano, but did find a shop right off St. Mark’s. I picked up a lovely paperweight and was happy to be able to bring a bit of the art of Venice (and the Biennale) home with me.

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